Backstage

In search of the real Jean Charest

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 2 1997
Backstage

In search of the real Jean Charest

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 2 1997

In search of the real Jean Charest

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In the days immediately after the 1993 election, it was sometimes said that the Liberals were a party in search of a leader, while the Progressive Conservatives had a leader in search of a party. Jean Chrétien, unhappy and ineffective in opposition, had not yet proven his mettle. By contrast, Jean Charest was the two-seat Tories’ major asset. His charisma had become clear during his unsuccessful but impressive underdog campaign against Kim Campbell for the Tory leadership.

Then, despite the mess his party was in, Charest’s best days seemed to lie ahead. He was wooed by the Quebec and federal Liberals, along with several law firms. The Tories’ defeat was not his fault, and he was well-liked by politicians in all parties. His positions on many major issues remained unknown, but that was understandable: he had never been in a position to dictate policy before.

Today, those circumstances are different.

Depending on the way the vote splits, the Tories could win, say, five seats—or 75. That final seat total will quite likely decide whether their leader remains in federal politics, or decides to try something else. At age 38,

Charest is the youngest and most exciting of the five party leaders. But to many people, he remains the biggest unknown. He favors “a brighter future,” he says, over and over—as if other leaders oppose that. And he passionately supports national unity—no small thing to find in a bright, relatively young francophone Quebecer. He harbors an intense grudge against Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard. In 1990, Bouchard, then a Tory, was Charest’s mentor, and urged him to accept the chairmanship of a committee studying the Meech Lake accord. When Bouchard bolted the party, renounced federalism, and denounced the committee’s findings, his former protégé was devastated.

What else drives Charest? Once, when people talked of “Red Tories”—a catchall phrase for those PCs who call themselves social liberals, but fiscal conservatives—Charest seemed to be one. Now, sensing an opening to the right of the Liberals, he is reborn as an opponent of existing gun-control legislation, and overall his party’s program, with the exception of its stance on Quebec, mirrors that of Reform. He denounces Prime Minister Jean Chrétien for his “inflexible” approach to federalism—but Charest would, as prime minister, impose freer trade between provinces even if some of them screamed about it. His federalist credentials are firm, but he courts Quebec nationalists by opposing a Supreme Court challenge of the province’s right to unilateral secession.

In his personal style, he is most reminiscent of Brian Mulroney, the political leader under whom he served his tutelage. Both men are expert at cultivating and keeping networks of supporters. Both

He was once regarded as a ‘Red Tory,’ but many of his policies are now similar to those of Preston Manning

revel in the cut and thrust of competition, although Charest better hides his partisan instincts. And both men rely, to a remarkable degree, on their wives for guidance.

Even their outward mannerisms are sometimes strikingly similar: both Mulroney and Charest have the rich, sonorous voices of radio personalities—and use that for careful effect. Mulroney, with his mellifluous baritone, sounds like the sort of FM host who introduces Barry Manilow tunes on overnight programs devoted to the lovelorn, while Charest has the more urgent, clipped tones of a morning newsreader vying for attention in between Top 40 hits.

Like Mulroney, Charest has mastered the politician’s necessary art of seeming intimate while actually saying nothing revealing.

When telling anecdotes, he lowers his voice, delivers his tale in a conspiratorial tone, and hits the punch line with apparent spontaneous delight. Never mind that he has usually told the same story many times before. Charest’s defining moment in the Englishlanguage television debate came when he won spontaneous applause by vowing to pass on to his children a united Canada. The line has been a staple in his French-language speeches for years.

The comparisons of Mulroney and Charest are inevitable. Both are smoothly bilingual, small-town Quebecers of Irish working-class heritage. (In fact, because his anglophone mother attended to his baptismal certificate, Charest is actually listed on it as “John James Charest.”) Both come from tightly knit families, and each lost a parent relatively early in life (Mulroney’s father died while he was in his early 20s, Charest’s mother while he was in his late teens.) Charest’s still-vigorous father, “Red,” a former professional hockey player and a man of quiet, rough-hewn dignity, was an affectionate but stern disciplinarian who told his children there are three important values in life: ‘Work, work and work.”

In other ways, the two differ greatly. Charest is more comfortable with himself than Mulroney. As a happy result, he lacks Mulroney’s dark, vindictive side. And while Mulroney loved using shopworn, stilted rhetoric, Charest is far more glib and at ease in a fast-paced multimedia era. But there is a more crucial difference. Mulroney adopted firm policies on such crucial issues as the Constitution, free trade, taxation and foreign policy. Charest, with his vagueness on detail and fondness for policies based more on pragmatism than principle, still appears to be making it up as he goes along. To many English-Canadians, there’s nothing wrong with a leader whose attributes include being a charming bilingual Quebecer with flexible, mostly moderate, policies, and a heart-on-sleeve love for Canada. The problem for Charest at election time is that Canada already has a prime minister just like that: even his initials are the same.